Many schools across Victoria struggle to meet the government’s legislative requirement of providing a curriculum covering the eight key learning areas, particularly languages other than English.
This issue is more the case in non-metropolitan areas and is often the result of the physical and financial restrictions in specialist teachers attending non-metropolitan schools for short periods of time. For a remote Australian primary school, the idea of using video-conferencing to connect pupils with a distant language teacher has immediate appeal.
Getting the right mix of language and technology
However, the integration of technology and language learning has presented obstacles, just as it has promised innovation. In taking this route, schools face a range of challenges including accessing grants to purchase VC systems (often over $10,000); understanding how to operate video-conferencing (VC) systems both from a teaching and technological perspective; developing knowledge about how teaching through VC requires changes to teaching practices, and the challenge in creating a sense of presence in order to motivate students when the language teacher is not in the classroom.
My colleagues and I decided to look closely at how schools successfully do this in the Australian state of Victoria.
Our research focus
Our research team focused on two networks of schools in regional and remote contexts in Victoria, showcasing innovative, sustainable language programs that have set up through video-conferencing. The first network involves one small regional school delivering a Japanese program to 12 other schools across a 20,000km2 area. Schools are able to access a series of 30 minutes lessons during the course of a week. This includes a 30 minute session undertaken directly with the language teacher, a 30 minutes extension provided by the classroom teacher offline, a 30 minute session where schools log in with the language teacher and other regional schools to work in peer groups and a 30 minute extension session which focuses on hiragana writing practice.
The school which provides the language program, Trawalla Primary School, started the program after previous efforts had failed. By finding out about other models of provision in another state, and by building on their past experiences, they realised that they had the knowledge to develop their own innovative and sustainable model of languages provision through VC.
The second network involves one language teacher who rotates between three schools. Each week the teacher is based at one school and teaches languages classes face to face for one group of students, while simultaneously teaching to two other groups of students at two other schools through the VC system.
Again this system was set up after the three schools had struggled together to fund a sustainable and quality language program, and repeatedly failed to find a language teacher in their regional context.
Our research focus was how these two networks emerged and how they operate – what decisions were made, and re-made, about how teachers, pupils, schools and video-conferencing technology could be brought together, to make a viable and effective network of primary school language education.
Significant changes in recent years have helped overcome a number of crucial challenges with the technology needed for VC. These have included the VicSmart project (2005-2011) which has connected Victorian Government schools to an optical fibre broadband network, with the goal of supporting digital learning in schools. The Department of Education (DET) now provides a centralised, internet service to government schools, access to centralised phone support for technical issues and all such schools have regular localised technical support onsite.
Federal and State level grants have also enabled schools to receive high-quality video-conferencing systems, which at over $10,000, are beyond the budget of many small schools.
The wonderful teachers involved in these networks argue that there is nothing that cannot be taught through a video-conferencing-based lesson. However, aside from enthusiasm, the success of such programmes is the result of building up expertise and knowledge around a broad range of issues and making modifications, as required.
The numerous areas that the language teachers need to address include:
- building technology expertise
- student engagement with a remote teacher
- changes to teaching practices when teaching through technology as well as the teaching activities undertaken;
- the integration of different types of technology (e.g. PowerPoint, iPads, websites and links; videos, etc…) and
- differentiation in curriculum when teaching to small, whole school cohorts of students. For example, some of the small schools only had 10 students from Prep (Foundation) to Year 6 and they all study in the one class. The language teacher needs to make a range of adjustments when engaging with students of different ages.
You can do this at your school too
The Languages Unit at the Victorian DET, has produced a range of materials based on the Trawalla Primary School model. The aim is to encourage schools in regional and remote areas to have a go at teaching or accessing languages through VC.
These materials include three digital stories from the perspective of:
- The principal who set up the program and the benefits it has bought to the school;
- The language teacher delivering the program, some of the points and successes of this approach;
- The perspective of a receiving school, which is located in a remote area, and has previously struggled to provide a language program.
Examining all of the information that is needed to set up a VC program can seem overwhelming. However, the videos capture the passion and energy of the teachers, principals, parents and students and demonstrate how easily programs run. Importantly, it shows how school communities spread out across the state are working together to provide fun and engaging language lessons.
Accompanying the three films is a guidance manual, on how to set up such a network, including details of support services for digital learning, the use of video-conferencing systems and advice from the three perspectives represented in the digital stories.
The digital stories and support manual are available on the Victorian government teacher support, FUSE website.
Most importantly, the expert use of VC allows students in regional and remote areas to gain access to a key specialist area, languages education, and the Trawalla Primary School model can be replicated across rural and regional areas. Additionally, the models we looked at in our research highlight how staff and students are developing expert knowledge in technology and innovative teaching and learning practises; essential skills to take into the future.
Yvette Slaughter lectures in Language and Literacy Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include language policy and planning, language education (policy, methodologies and program implementation), and language and social cohesion. Yvette is currently working on research projects focusing on equitable access to languages education in the Australian context, as well as a project focused on developing a range of materials to alleviate the concerns of principals in schools with high numbers of students from EAL/D and refugee backgrounds. The materials were designed to inform schools and principals about the relationship between literacy and numeracy in English, and in languages other than English, and the educational benefits of an integrated curriculum for all students, including EAL and refugee students.
This research project Bridging the rural/urban divide: languages education through video-conferencing was supported by an interdisciplinary grant through the Melbourne Networked Society Institute (MNSI) at The University of Melbourne and awarded to Prof. John Hajek, Dr Wally Smith, Dr Yvette Slaughter, Dr Shanton Chang and Dr Suelette Dreyfus.